No legislation no bad thing

Conor Ryan suggests that the absence of education legislation in the Queen’s Speech may be a blessing for education reform

When I was a special adviser at the Department for Education in the late 1990s, it was seen as a measure of a Department’s success the extent to which it achieved legislation in the Queen’s Speech. This essentially macho test often led to more legislation than was strictly necessary to achieve policy goals.

Many people forget that although the Labour government needed legislation to restrict most infant class sizes to 30, it needed no legislation to introduce the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools. The latter were the result of a mix of persuasion and accountability, and were arguably more effective as a result.

And legislation was too often used as a way to trumpet changes that could have been introduced less dramatically. Trust schools – the centrepiece of Tony Blair’s 2005 education reforms – were a good example. As with Michael Gove’s first academies legislation, the essential architecture was already in place, and what changes were needed could have been introduced with less fanfare through regulations.

So, it is no bad thing that there was no education legislation in this year’s Queen’s Speech. Of course, that didn’t stop the Government using the occasion from getting Her Majesty to remind Parliament of changes already in train, such as the curriculum overhaul or performance pay for teachers.

But nobody would argue that Michael Gove is any less powerful because he hasn’t got a fifty or a hundred clause bill to take through Parliament over the next twelve months. And I doubt any of his junior ministers – who would be tasked with the legwork – is overly concerned either.

However, what it does mean is that it is all the more important that changes the Government is introducing get the scrutiny they deserve, and that they are subjected to the sort of rigorous evaluation – usually through randomised control trials – that the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation are using.

That is important not just for ministers who want to ensure that their reforms are making a difference to results, particularly for the poorest pupils, but also if they are to gain buy-in from teachers and headteachers.

With more than half of all secondary schools now having academy status, as well as a growing number of free schools and university technical colleges, schools are getting used to having more freedoms than before. And while complex legislation can be important on some issues – such as ensuring a fair admissions code – it is a blunt instrument over issues such as the curriculum or performance related pay.

Over-complexity militates against successful reform. When Estelle Morris first introduced performance pay in 2000, the intervention of the teaching unions ensured the whole process was wrapped in endless bureaucracy.

Leave aside for a moment the perfectly valid issue of the impact of PRP on attainment – though Gerard Kelly’s recent TES piece show why in this case there are other issues to consider – the real problem is that legal issues come to outweigh the flexibility that allows heads to reward good teachers in a straightforward way.  A less complex system may prove to be more effective in overcoming the culture against PRP in some schools. And we might then have some serious research on the issue too.

But those increasingly independent state schools will equally need to be persuaded on the curriculum – including on the detail now planned in subjects like history – and on other issues where ministers feel strongly. As they do so, it is important that they use evidence rather than past practice or even DFE guidance to make their decisions.

That’s why the increasing popularity of the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit is so important. Next week, we plan to publish new evidence of just how popular it is becoming. But in the meantime, we should reflect that giving Michael Gove and schools a break from the 2014 Education Act is not only no bad thing, it may allow the breathing space needed for genuine reform to take place.

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